The Miami Heat did it again on Thursday, continuing their habit of ignoring the rules of the Eastern Conference food chain.
This time, they turned the Philadelphia 76ers, formerly indomitable predators at home, into prey with a 108-104 victory in Philly.
Miami handed the Sixers their first home loss this season, ending a streak of 14 straight wins and adding to the list of upper-crust East squads it has already ambushed this year. The Milwaukee Bucks and Toronto Raptors also suffered their first home defeats at the hands of the Heat, who've held up against the elites far better than most.
The Heat, now 20-8 and sitting in second place in the East, have spent the season defying preseason expectations that generally topped out at "respectable with mild upside."
Thursday's win was especially difficult to see coming considering the Sixers bashed Miami by a final of 113-86 back on Nov. 23. But the Heat leaned hard on a zone defense that flummoxed the slow-to-adjust Sixers and got just enough timely scoring to survive.
We can't go much further without noting how the result reflects poorly on the Sixers, a team that fancies itself a true contender. Philadelphia's lack of zone-piercing ball-handlers and quick-trigger shooters made it particularly vulnerable to the Heat's tactics, and its struggles were all the more frustrating as possession after possession elapsed without Joel Embiid getting touches on the interior.
Of course, the NBA remains a make-or-miss league. Had the Sixers converted on a few more of the clean looks they got as they grew more comfortable against Miami's scheme, the result (and this narrative) might have been different. Their 12-of-39 effort from deep wasn't quite good enough.
Credit the Heat for their resourcefulness, though. They committed to an approach some might view as gimmicky, but it was in keeping with a mentality that defines the team as a whole. Jimmy Butler gives Miami a star, but his main function is to fill in the gaps for a cast of role players who excel in one or two areas despite limitations in others.
The Heat don't necessarily square up and go blow for blow with the league's best. They out-think them, trusting players in a relatively tight rotation (further constricted on Thursday with Goran Dragic and Justise Winslow sidelined) to do their jobs and play collectively.
Bam Adebayo, who's probably the best player most national audiences don't know about, is gradually moving beyond that role-filling stage. He was at least as valuable as Butler on Thursday, posting 23 points, nine rebounds and five assists while hitting floaters over Embiid on the short roll, competing in a crowd on the glass and diming up teammates in the Heat's cut-heavy attack.
When the Sixers snoozed, he struck.
Everyone contributed. Derrick Jones Jr. was a rangy pest at the top of the zone, Tyler Herro probed the defense and handed out seven assists in 25 minutes, Duncan Robinson hit timely threes, and Kendrick Nunn produced buckets that always seemed to fend off Philly comebacks.
Nunn, who led all scorers with 26 points, was undeniably lucky on a few late-clock prayers. Fortune favors the bold, though, and despite his rookie status, he takes those big shots with no shortage of confidence.
Perhaps he and the rest of the Heat play with such self-assuredness because they know they're not operating alone.
The Sixers are an enormous and imposing opponent, but Miami worked collectively to avoid toe-to-toe confrontations. The Heat rank third in handoff usage, generating points on such plays at a clip that ranks in the 94th percentile. They're second in percentage of plays finished with cuts, and though they're less efficient on those from a percentile perspective, they use them often enough to rank third in points per game.
You can't excel with that style unless you've got unselfish players who trust one another, move without the ball and avoid rhythm-busting isolation play.
Maybe it's easier for the Heat to work so cooperatively because much of the team shares an underdog status.
Miami may not have the same success against upper-echelon teams in a playoff series. Repeat meetings and more extensive scouting often tip the scale in favor of pure talent. The Heat's schematic flexibility and all-hands-on-deck approach could unravel if, say, Embiid and the Sixers get several cracks at them in a row.
In fact, even though Philly's roster was especially vulnerable to Thursday's zone, it got comfortable enough to cut Miami's lead, which hit 16 points with just over seven minutes left in regulation, down to just two in the final minute.
Miami can worry about the postseason efficacy of its style in a few months. For now, it should take pride in its giant-killing ways, and we should enjoy the counterpoint it provides to top-end teams that lean on MVPs, multiple All-Stars and overwhelming physical advantages.
It's nice to see the natural order upset every once in a while, and the Heat have been this season's best disruptors.